Black metal has been rife with purists since it first emerged as a distinct subculture in Norway in the early 90s, and many of its most devoted fans still insist that it has to come from Scandinavia to be considered "true." Ten years ago this faction was influential enough that American black metal was widely considered a knockoff or even a joke, but today the music's audience is so much larger and more diverse that the zealots no longer have that kind of pull. American bands like Leviathan, Xasthur, and Wolves in the Throne Room are now seen as standard-bearers of the style, in large part because they've departed from its orthodoxies—instead of imitating 20-year-old Emperor records, they're pushing black metal in new directions, coloring it with psychedelia or even prog rock.
One of the biggest names in this new wave of American black metal is Nachtmystium. Like many black-metal acts, the band is essentially one person, Blake Judd, backed by a constantly shifting roster of guest players. Now 27, Judd started Nachtmystium in 2000, when he was 17 and still living in his parents' house in Wheaton. (He later moved to Saint Charles, and then in 2008 to Chicago.) Though he'd been a metalhead for years, at the time he'd only just gotten seriously into black metal, and as befits a novice, he stuck with tradition. He dyed his hair black, wore the mandatory bullet belt, and started using a vaguely demonic-sounding stage name, Azentrius. He also adopted a profoundly hateful worldview, again in keeping with the tone of classic black metal—a decision he still has reason to regret.
Black metal has pretty much always been dogged by a handful of bands that espouse philosophies that aren't merely ugly but downright toxic: anti-Semitism, racism, ultranationalism, neo-Nazism. Some people believe Nachtmystium to be one of those bands, and while there isn't a lot of incriminating evidence out there, in cases like this a lot isn't required. In a 2005 interview with Metalreviews.com, Judd referred to MTV and other media outlets as "Zionist means of demoralizing young American's [sic] artistic standards." And two early Nachtmystium discs, 2001's Unholy Terrorist Cult demo and 2002's Reign of the Malicious, were at some point distributed by Vinland Winds and Unholy Records, respectively—both of which have ties to white supremacist organizations and specialize in national socialist black metal, an explicitly racist sub-subgenre.
Judd claims he didn't authorize either arrangement, which is more believable than it sounds. Unholy Terrorist Cult was a CD-R, and he says Vinland simply burned more copies without the band's permission—closer to piracy than distribution. Reign of the Malicious was released by Regimental Records, one of the tiny DIY operations that dominate the black-metal scene and often trade stock among themselves to widen their reach. Judd says that when he found out Regimental was trading with Unholy, he demanded it stop. "It's just not something I wanted my name associated with, even back then," he says.
Concerning the anti-Semitic quote, Judd insists it was taken out of context—but Metalreviews.com senior staffer Zadok Day is skeptical of that. "Our interviews generally are based on accurate transcripts," he writes, "and assuming that to be the case here we at Metalreviews.com stand by it." Whatever he was trying to get across in 2005, though, Judd now disavows the word Zionist. "I probably didn't realize exactly what I was saying," he says. "I made a stupid comment when I was a kid."
The mere existence of the controversy has caused problems for Nachtmystium. Last year they had to cancel a German tour when a group of promoters boycotted the band, and in February 2009 they were dropped from Atlanta's Scion Rock Fest at the last minute—after which they issued a statement that read, in part, "We are not a Nazi band, are not political, are certainly not racists and do not support that world or any band, person or business affiliated with it."
I've been looking into this for months and haven't found any further credible evidence supporting the allegations against Judd. "Knowing him really closely for the past five years," says Yakuza front man Bruce Lamont, "as well as knowing him for ten years total, I never once heard him say anything off." Judd collaborated with Robert Lowe of Lichens, who's black, on the new album from underground-metal supergroup Twilight. Bruce Finkelman, his boss at the Empty Bottle—Judd worked the door from August 2009 till January 2010—is Jewish, as is Nachtmystium's manager, Merrick Jarmulowicz. The folks who started the German boycott have since agreed to work with the band in the future, and Nachtmystium recently played their first concerts in that country, including a date at Festung Open Air in late May.
Judd gives the whole business the finger with a new Nachtmystium T-shirt, on which the Grim Reaper snorts a cross-shaped rail of coke off a coffin lid under the slogan white powder not white power. (This doubles as a fuck-you to persistent rumors that he's a junkie.) He got tired of playing the part of the stereotypical black-metal musician years ago, and when he abandoned that extreme confrontational stance, he did the same with the style's musical conventions. By 2006, when he released the breakthrough album Instinct: Decay, he'd started folding in a range of unexpected elements. These days he no longer considers Nachtmystium's music true black metal, and he hasn't called himself Azentrius in about five years.
"I think we did something a little different with Instinct: Decay," Judd says, "the biggest influences being Pink Floyd and Hawkwind. It was just stuff I grew up with, you know? I shut out so much other music during my late teenage years and very early 20s because I was so engulfed in this black-metal shit. Basically, I brought those influences in because my narrow-mindedness was starting to go away a little bit."
Instinct: Decay was embraced not only by metalheads outside the black-metal enclave but also by fans it'd be a stretch to refer to as metalheads at all. "It's really kind of easy to, you know, pioneer off into other realms with this type of music because it is such a closed-minded genre," Judd says. "A lot of people, I think, are afraid or unwilling to really experiment. . . . It's kind of easy to be creative with it because not a lot of stuff has been done with it. It's still a relatively fresh genre of metal. What I notice is when black-metal bands change their genre, they turn into death-metal bands. If you look at Behemoth or somebody like that, you know, you go from being necro to Morbid Angel." To be necro is to achieve the ideal state of grim, frostbitten black metal-ness. "You don't go from being necro to a fucking jam band or whatever."
Nachtmystium's 2008 album, Assassins: Black Meddle Pt. I, isn't death metal or jam-band music, but it strays even further from necro than Instinct: Decay. Jef Whitehead—aka Wrest, the sole member of Leviathan, who's also in Twilight—turned Judd on to Joy Division and their indie-rock descendants, like Interpol and the Editors, and traces of those sounds appear on Assassins. Still, the borrowings on Nachtmystium's two previous albums don't seem calculated to piss off black-metal diehards: Hawkwind, for instance, influenced earlier styles of metal, and Joy Division is one of the darkest, bleakest-sounding bands ever. The new Addicts: Black Meddle Pt. II, on the other hand, draws not just from those sources but from electronics-heavy groups like Killing Joke, Ministry, and Depeche Mode. Judd calls the music "black metal disco," wearing the shit-eating grin of a man who's already reveling in the nerd rage the album's sure to inspire.
The personnel on Addicts are all metal musicians: Whitehead on drums, Will Lindsay of Indian (and formerly Wolves in the Throne Room) on bass, and longtime Nachtmystium contributor Jeff Wilson, who parted ways with Judd after the sessions, on guitar. But producer Sanford Parker gives it an almost techno-industrial feel, adding synthesizers and using drum replacement to digitally swap out the acoustic drum sounds with samples that could pass for something off a Nine Inch Nails record. (Judd's live band is completely different: Andrew Markuszewski and Charlie Fell, both from Lord Mantis, on bass and drums, and Pat Clancy from Corpse Vomit on second guitar.) Cuts like "High on Hate," with its blurry-fast guitars and unrelenting aggression, fit comfortably within black metal's stylistic boundaries, but "Blood Trance Fusion," with its swaggering midtempo rhythm and synth squeals, is more Marilyn Manson than Mayhem. "Ruined Life Continuum" has a disco-inflected beat, delay-soaked guitars, and a huge pop hook that sounds almost exactly like Interpol—except with Paul Banks's arch baritone replaced by black-metal shrieking.
"It's funny," Judd says. "I've probably done 40 or 50 interviews in the last couple of weeks, and a few of [the journalists I've talked to] are like, 'Man, I just didn't see this coming. I can't believe how different it is.' And I'm like, 'You're obviously familiar with the band's catalog. How could you not really see it coming, you know?'"